Evaluation | ‘The Closing of Us’ recap: Extra floor laws and a large dose of frame horror

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Note: My name is Mikhail Klimentov. I’m an editor for Launcher, The Washington Post’s video game vertical. Unlike Gene Park, who wrote last week’s recap, I’m following “The Last of Us” from the perspective of someone who hasn’t played the games — though as someone who follows video game media, I’m acquainted with the plot and characters.

I have to be brutally honest: I found episode 1 of “The Last of Us” a bit dull. I attributed that to it being a pilot telling a story I already basically knew, but a five star rating system, I’d probably give it a three. Good news, though: episode 2 is way better!

We open Jakarta on Sept. 24, 2003. A woman, Ibu Ratna, professor of mycology at the University of Indonesia, is detained by a serious-looking military authority and brought to what looks to be a hospital. There, Ratna inspects a corpse, which has a nasty bite on its leg and a mouth full of still-moving mycelium.

Measured against the intro to the first episode — the talk show bit — I thought this was much stronger. The first intro had the unenviable job of having to explain the idea of an apocalyptic fungal infection to an audience that may have been primed for just another zombie TV show. Here, we know what’s going on, and the opening sequence coasts on that, delivering dread and melancholy all the way through. When the professor realizes the scope of the problem — at that point, only about 15 infected people unaccounted for — she tells the military man: “Bomb. Start bombing. Bomb this city and everyone it.” Clear-eyed about the problem, Ratna asks to go home and spend her remaining time with her family.

(This is a Craig Mazin speciality, by the way. If you liked this flavor of “scientist grapples with an overwhelming, inhuman disaster front of a bureaucrat,” boy do I have good news for you about Mazin’s previous show, “Chernobyl.”)

We cut to Ellie, who wakes up to find Joel and Tess standing guard over her. They interrogate her and learn that her destination is a Firefly military base, where her miraculous survival might help manufacture a cure. Joel says he’s heard it all before, and wants no part of it.

There’s some lovely staging this scene. Ellie sits under a beam of light, tufts of grass and flowers sprouting around her. Joel, on the other hand, is in the dark. And Tess, as the scene progresses, steps from out of the dark with Joel, ending up right between the two. The whole time, Joel’s hands shake (a hairline fracture; he brushes it off). Tess’s faith, meanwhile — in everything she thought she knew about the infection — is shaken too. Tess finds the middle ground, and the adventure continues. Ellie may not be who the Fireflies think she is, but delivering her will still net the adults what they need: a car battery.

Outside, the group comes upon a crater. “Is this where they bombed?” asks Ellie. It is, Tess says. Most big cities, we learn, were hit like this. But it’s not apparent that it worked all those other places, or what “worked” means, for that matter. A bit later, when Ellie references zombies that use echolocation, Tess and Joel exchange worried looks.

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Back to back, we get two one-on-one conversations between Ellie and either Tess or Joel. (This is known as juxtaposition.) Tess comments that Ellie is a weird kid, but she’s obviously warming to her. They talk about how Ellie bit the first place (she gives one of those answers that feels like it’s omitting something, like we’ll be revisiting this in a later episode, maybe), and you can sense there’s a flicker of recognition when Ellie talks about breaking into an off-limits area in the quarantine zone. That’s Tess and Joel’s bread and butter; they’re smugglers, after all.

Joel and Ellie have a harder time finding common ground — or rather, their dynamic is shaping up differently than Tess and Ellie’s. As a paternal guardian protector type figure, Joel moves to save Ellie from a skeleton-falling-over jumpscare as the group heads toward the State House. That’s a point in the Joel column. But Ellie isn’t really primed to make conversation with a guy who she knows has definitely thought about killing her. She wisecracks, and the only heartfelt back and forth the two have is about killing infected. Does Joel feel bad killing them knowing they were once people, Ellie asks? Sometimes, Joel says.

Taken together, these two conversations form an interesting impression of the trio. They almost look like… a family? I hope nothing bad happens!

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There’s an obstacle on the way to the State House: a mass of infected, seen from the roof of the hotel. We learn a bit more about the rules of the world here. As a patch of light passes over the zombies, we see them writhe in a wave-like motion, in unison. Tess explains that they’re connected. If you step on a patch of cordyceps in one place, an underground fungal connection alerts cordyceps elsewhere, like a trip wire.

Seeing as that route is closed, the group opts to go through a museum. There’s a passage on the roof that’ll bring them closer. The museum’s facade is covered in fungal growth, but Joel tests it with the butt of his rifle and declares it bone dry. Perhaps, he reasons, the infected inside are dead. But when they enter, Ellie stumbles upon a body that looks very recently dead. And it looks worse than other victims have; Joel and Tess are visibly freaked out by the state of this corpse. But for the trio’s purposes, the only way out is through, so silently they go.

Silence is the key word here. Remember those zombies Ellie mentioned that use echolocation? Here they are! When the group makes it to the second floor, the ceiling caves in behind them, obstructing their way out. The commotion also attracts two zombies; Joel signals to Ellie that these infected can’t see, and move around based on sound. (These appear to be clickers, a type of zombie from the game.) An exhale from Ellie sets one off, and Joel fights it off while the second one chases Tess and Ellie. At a certain point, Ellie and Tess split up, and the attention focuses back to Joel, who regroups with Ellie. The camera work here really turns up the tension: By my estimate, the infected are off screen more than on in this sequence, with tight zooms taking them off our radar. The fight ends with Joel shooting one zombie and Tess lodging a hatchet in another.

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Ellie is bitten again, but shrugs it off: “If it was going to happen to one of us,” she says, trailing off.

“You alright?” Joel asks Tess. Twisted ankle, she responds.

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Joel goes to bandage Tess’s foot, but is rebuked when he asks if she thinks the second bite might actually infect Ellie. She wants him to look on the bright side. Maybe for once, she says, they can actually win. He looks out toward the golden dome of the Massachusetts State House, and in the sun, something resembling a smile crosses his face.

As the group approaches the State House, they see a truck. It’s empty, and there’s a corpse not far from it. A trail of blood leads indoors. Tess hurries indoors, only to find more corpses. One bit, and the healthy ones fought the sick ones, Joel determines. To him, this means the adventure is over, and it’s time to go home. But Tess is adamant: Joel now needs to get Ellie to her destination. Ellie figures it out before Joel does: Tess is infected.

Her hands shake and her voice wavers as she asks Joel to commit to take Ellie to Bill and Frank, who she says will take her off his hands. (For the record, we don’t know who Bill and Frank are, yet, though people who have played “The Last of Us” may have some sense of what the story is there.) There’s some blink-and-you’ll-miss-it characterization here, too: Pleading with Joel, Tess tells him she never asked him to feel the way she felt. Tess and Joel are close enough. But the takeaway here is that Tess found something resembling normalcy in the post-apocalypse: love. It doesn’t seem like Joel ever did. At least he never admitted to it.

As this scene has unfolded, Joel has stood rooted in place, mutely nodding or shaking his head. Suddenly, one of the corpses shudders to life, and this is a world in which Joel is comfortable again. He strides over with authority and shoots the zombie in the head. Then, we see tendrils flit up between the corpse’s fingers. The underground fungal wiring Tess was talking about before has been activated, and a horde of nearby zombies awakens. Whatever time Tess thought she had with Joel left is definitively cut short.

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Save who you can save, Tess tells Joel. So he grabs Ellie and hauls her out of the building, leaving Tess behind.

Tess starts upturning barrels of gasoline and scattering around grenades, intending to blow up the zombies that have arrived. But she struggles to flick on her lighter, attracting the attention of a zombie that’s a bit more human than the clickers we saw earlier (he has recognizable facial features, including one eye). In what has perhaps been my least favorite sequence in this show so far, the zombie plants a tendril-full smackeroo on Tess; it’s a cursed mirror image of the recognition and intimacy Tess wanted from Joel. (I go a bit longer on that scene in a separate article). As the mycelia work their way into her mouth, we see the lighter finally produce a flame.

From Ellie and Joel’s vantage point outside, we see an explosion burst from the State House, with a handful of infected burning up on their way out of the building. Ellie seems shocked. Joel’s facial expression, meanwhile, calls into question Tess’s earlier assertion about his feeling toward her. His gaze lingers, his eyes water — then he remembers Ellie, turns away from the State House and keeps walking.

Questions and observations

  • This episode is all about Tess. She can envision a future. She wants to know things about other people. Episode 2 is about her personality refracting off of Ellie and Joel, and what’s revealed about the main characters in that light.
  • I’ve seen a number of YouTube videos theorizing that the source of the fungal infection is contaminated flour. Sarah, Joel and Tommy pointedly avoid any food with flour in it in episode 1, and in this episode, the outbreak is sourced to a flour and grain factory in Indonesia. It’s an interesting easter egg if you’re into that sort of thing (though I am not).
  • There’s a snippet in the intro sequence where we see an abstracted person’s face. The fungal growth then continues out of the forehead — just as cordyceps really do to their insect hosts.
  • There was a whole brouhaha over the show not having fungal spores in it like the game did. Well, if you care about that, Ellie says the word “spores” around the 20 minute mark. Eat your heart out. This has been this week’s edition of Spore Watch. I would not count on this being a recurring segment.
  • A frog plays a piano in this episode. The piano sounds shockingly good for being submerged in water and presumably not being tuned for some twenty years. Every piano tuner I’ve ever spoken to says you need to tune them at least once a year, or the pins get messed up. Maybe I’ve been getting ripped off.

Episode 1: ‘When You’re Lost in the Darkness’